November 4, 2012
One reason why I love working in the bourbon industry is because the leaders in the industry are some of the most approachable people on earth. Point being, call the Pappy Van Winkle phone number on their website and who will pick up the phone? None other than Julian or Preston Van Winkle. No “gate-keeper” to divert phone calls. Image trying to call Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. Good luck trying to speak with them!
I know those are a little different in scale, but my point remains the same, the leaders in the bourbon industry love to talk shop, regardless of whom their audience might be. The reason why I amtelling you this is because I interviewed Preston Van Winkle after simply calling their phone number and asking for a little bit of his time. The results of this conversation will be a part of another blog article (I cannot find my damn notes from the conversation. They are around here somewhere!), but I had the opportunity to listen to Sally Van Winkle (the grand-daughter of Pappy himself) speak at the October Bourbon Society meeting. She had some fascinating insights on what it was like growing up at in the Van Winkle household.
My favorite story was how years ago, the Van Winkles asked some of their largest customers to come in to Louisville for their annual meeting. The largest customer in Wisconsin was a “Madam” that owned a bar that only sold bourbon. They called the Madam the night before the meeting and offered to pay for her flight into Louisville. While working the bar, she gladly accepted the invitation and said that she would take care of her own transportation. Next thing the Van Winkles know is that the next morning, a “sloppy looking woman” shows up at the meeting after having hired a taxi-cab to drive her from Wisconsin! It turns out that he Madam simply walked up to the Van Winkles and said “you owe me some money for the cab!” The cabby and the Madam ended up staying all weekend and they had a great time.
I thought that was a great synopsis of what life was like years ago at the Pappy Van Winkle company. Very down to earth. During Sally Van Winkle’s speech, I asked the question, “What makes Pappy…Pappy? I mean, it has the largest cult following of any spirit that I know of.” Sally stated that it all leads back to a world spirit competition in the early 1990s where Pappy scored a 99 out of 100 possible points. Word spread like wildfire about the phenomenal product, thus demand exploded. The problem was that the supply was not available to satisfy the demand. The accidental success of not having enough supply to fuel the increasing demand lead them to believe that this is a good business model…keeping volume low to keep the masses starving for more. They have carried over this strategy into today’s business model. For example, I personally have been calling several liquor stores on a regular basis to hope to get lucky and catch a store just as it arrives in stock. By the way, most liquor stores do not put the Pappy on the store shelves, you must ask for it by name. The likely response from the Liquor Store clerk is that they will laugh at you and say they do not have any, but keep trying and you will eventually get lucky….at least that is my “glass-half-full” mentality!
I will have a follow-up article about more of the operational history of Pappy and where it is now made (Buffalo Trace now distills Pappy) in the coming days once I find my notes from my conversation with Preston.
A tip to all readers, if you want Pappy, be diligent in calling several of your local liquor stores over the next two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Some stores only receive a bottle or two, so good luck!